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Atlanta star Josef Martinez tears right ACL, set for surgery

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

By PAUL NEWBERRY

AP Sports Writer

ATLANTA (AP) Atlanta United star Josef Martinez will undergo surgery after tearing the ACL in his right knee during the season-opening match at expansion Nashville, dealing a huge blow to one of Major League Soccer's top teams.

United announced the diagnosis Sunday for

but did not disclose if the anterior cruciate ligament was completely torn.

will likely be known after Martinez has surgery. It can take anywhere from two to six months to recover from a torn ACL, which means the dynamic striker - one of the most prolific scorers in MLS history - might be able to return before the end of the season.

It could be next season before Martinez fully recaptures the form that carried him to a then-record 31 goals two seasons ago, when

title. The mark was broken last season when Carlos Vela scored 34 goals for Los Angeles FC.

""Of course, you cannot replace Josef," Atlanta coach Frank de Boer said after Saturday night's 2-1 victory over Nashville. “Everybody knows that Josef, when he's in form, he's the best in MLS. I work with him everyday in training. I see his quality. It's going to be a big loss.”

With his fearless play in front of the net and ability to score with both feet and his head, the 26-year Venezuelan has tallied a staggering 77 goals in 84 MLS matches since entering the league for United's debut season in 2017. He had 27 goals in 29 regular-season matches last season.

Martinez quickly established himself as one of Atlanta's biggest stars, on par with leading athletes on more established teams. Recently, he was on hand to admire

that was painted on a wall near Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The injury also deals a severe blow to Atlanta's hopes of advancing in the CONCACAF Champions League. United won its opening-round series against Honduran club Motagua by a 4-1 aggregate, with Martinez scoring two goals.

Now, the team will have to search for a replacement as it prepares for a two-game quarterfinal series against Mexican stalwart América, which begins March 11 at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City before the return leg March 18 in suburban Atlanta.

Newcomer Adam Jahn will likely get the first crack at replacing Martinez. Jahn is a much taller player (6-foot-3), which would force the team to adjust its style up front.

“I know his quality. I know he can also score goals," de Boer said. "He has be ready.”

Midfielders Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco could also shift to the striker position at times to provide more scoring options.

in the second half after colliding with a Nashville player in the second half. He tried to hobble on, but wound up signalling to the bench that he needed to be subbed out.

Martinez was carried off the field on a stretcher.

Even as he discussed options for replacing Martinez, de Boer acknowledged the enormity of the loss to his club, which

and hopes to make another run at the title in 2020.

“You always like to have Josef on your team," the coach said. “He's maybe the first guy you put on your list.”

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

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Updated March 1, 2020

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